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Second Sunday after Easter

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church, Windsor

AD 2005


“I am the Good Shepherd”


This Sunday in Eastertide presents us with one of the great and most familiar images of care, the image of Christ the Good Shepherd. It is at once commonplace and yet altogether radical in its meaning. The root of care is cure. The care, we might say, is in the cure.


Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” What distinguishes good shepherds from bad is care. The Good Shepherd cares for the sheep. The meaning of that care is that he lays down his life for the sheep. There is sacrifice – the total giving of oneself for the good of another. It is what we have been privileged to see in Holy Week, on the one hand, contemplating the utter failure in and of ourselves to seek the good of one another and, on the other hand, contemplating the sacrificial love of Christ who alone accomplishes what belongs  to our eternal good.


 The Good Shepherd, and this is the great and wonderful paradox, is also the Lamb of God. His sacrifice is the cure for our sins but it also imparts his care for our lives. The pastoral ministry of the Church is rooted in this sense of care which is often called “the cure of souls.” It goes beyond the superficial and external matters of comfort and ease and convenience to address the distempers of our souls, the disenchantments of our hearts and the despair of our lives. There is no pastoral care without the naming of the cure and there is no cure without the acknowledgement of our need to be cured in the very root of our being. Once again, it belongs to the pageant of Holy Week to point this out to us. But it also belongs to the parade of Eastertide to show that sacrificial love is a living love. It belongs to the divine life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the divine love that has been made visible in the passion and crucifixion of Christ and in the wonder and triumph of Christ’s resurrection.


Jesus, as today’s Collect so marvelously puts it, is “both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life”. He is the sacrifice for sin. He is the cure, the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. He stands in the face of the destroyer of the sheep - ultimately our sins are his destroyer even as our sins diminish and destroy us. He is the shepherd who wills to be struck, not so that the sheep may be scattered, but so that through his being struck and our being scattered, he may gather us to himself. He gathers us through his care for us. He cares for us through his cure for us


He lays down his life, not simply because he is the Good Shepherd but because the condition of his being the Good Shepherd, first and foremost, is that he knows his sheep in his knowing and being known of the Father. Everything is drawn into the knowing love of the Trinity. The relation of the Son to the Father establishes the real context for the meaning of Christ the Good Shepherd. He cares for the sheep because they, we, belong to him. We are not our own. We are his and that alters the whole question of care. It has altogether to do with the nature of our humanity as constituted in the image of God. When we look at ourselves existentially and practically, we forget and deny this. We deny the very principle of the transcendence of our humanity which gives hope and dignity to our very being even and precisely in and through our suffering and dying.


Because we belong to him, he cares for us; because he cares for us, he lays down his life for us; “by his stripes we are healed.” He is our cure and he has risen for our justification. His life becomes our life, a life oriented to God through our love and service of one another made possible only in the sacrifice of Christ.


Thus, he is also an example of godly life. “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps”. It should be our care to follow in the steps of him who is our cure. There are things for us to lay hold of actively. What he has done for us in his free-willing sacrifice - justification is his cure for us - becomes the measure of his life in us - sanctification is his care for us. The challenge for us is to act upon it. But more than a constant challenge, it is equally our vocation as belonging to our identity in the body of Christ.


The interplay between cure and care, between justification and sanctification really, is crucial to the ordered life of the Church and belongs especially to one of the distinctive characteristics of our Anglican witness, now in such sad and sorry disarray. The Primate of The Anglican Church of Canada has betrayed the basis of our participation as a full and integral part of the Church Universal by suggesting that The Anglican Church of Canada “may choose to walk apart”, thereby violating the clear principle established in The Solemn Declaration governing the bishops and synods of the Canadian Church, namely, that “we declare this Church to be, and desire that it shall continue, in full communion with the Church of England throughout the world, as an integral portion of the One Body of Christ”. The Canterbury Connection, we might say, has been called into question.


Regardless of one’s opinion on the matter of human sexuality, there can be no doubt whatsoever that The Anglican Church of Canada as well as The Episcopal Church of the United States of America have acted precipitously and without regard for “the process of reception” that has been the modus operandi of the Anglican Communion for several decades, let alone ignoring the much more important matters of doctrine that should inform and guide the actions of the churches of the Communion. Whatever the blessings of friendships might mean, can there be any doubt whatsoever about the doctrine of Christian marriage so clearly stated in the doctrinal authority for Anglicans, namely The Book of Common Prayer? In a rather gracious way, the Primates of the Anglican Communion have given the North American Churches several years to correct and reform themselves; in short, to repent and be renewed. Let us pray that our Episcopal shepherds will care enough about the body of Christ to act in accord with such careful and prayerful direction.


The extended care of the Good Shepherd for the sheep is, after all, the Church’s pastoral ministry. It is wonderfully illustrated, among other places, in the mosaic in the apse of the 6th century church of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, near Ravenna on Italy’s Adriatic coast. There, in a paradisal garden, the garden of the resurrection, perhaps? stands St. Apollinaris in the centre under the cross, his hands extended in prayer. He stands in the midst of the sheep, indeed, twelve sheep, symbolic of the apostolic church. Above the vault of the dome those same twelve sheep, as it were, are ranged towards the figure of Christ whose hand is raised in episcopal blessing, alongside of whom are the symbols of the four evangelists.


The mosaic portrays the mission of the Church in the proclamation of the Gospel and the cure of souls. It tells this story. St. Apollinaris is sent forth as the shepherd to the sheep under the sign of the cross, even as the twelve apostles who are the sheep, too, of the shepherd are sent forth to be the shepherds of the sheep in the name and with the blessing of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, for he, too, is the Lamb of God. To put it all rather simply: the shepherds are also the sheep of the Good Shepherd who is also the Lamb of God; “a sacrifice for sin and an example of godly life”; our cure and the one who cares for us.


But, quite apart from the ancient mosaics in Ravenna and the countless depictions in stone and glass, in tapestry and song of Christ the Good Shepherd, have we not had a most wondrous example of sacrificial shepherding care in Pope John Paul II? His shepherding care, not only, it seems to me, for the Roman Catholic Church, not even for all Christians in a profound sense, but for all humanity, really, was rooted and grounded in the shepherding care of Christ, the Good Shepherd of us all and the Lamb of God. That dual sense of shepherding care and crucifying cure was made visible in the suffering apostolate of John Paul II. It remains as one of the great images for our age, recalling us to our mission and life in Christ. While engaging the world in all of its confusions, he steadfastly refused to compromise the basic doctrines of the faith to accommodate particular agendas and programmes. That has been, it seems to me, the North American disease in particular, the demand that the gospel be reduced to the sensual and the practical. But then it ceases to be the gospel. Then there is no care, only the kindness that kills.


We meet in the care of the Good Shepherd. His Word is proclaimed; his Sacraments are celebrated. Here is his care and his cure for us. Where the Word and the Sacraments are faithfully proclaimed and celebrated, there is the Church without which there is no care, no cure. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd of our souls through the Church, his body, by which he gives us his Word, and the tangible and effective signs of his care for us, his Sacraments. His care is rooted in his love for us. That love is our cure. Quite simply, Jesus is our cure who cares for us, provided that we hear the voice of the one who says


“I am the Good Shepherd”.